How Story Meets Function - Brad Zuger - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 144

Dan: Today's guest believes that each project offers a different way to innovate. With over 15 years of experience, he's worked on projects across the globe. He's a principal and studio leader at Rockwell group in New York city, and he's growing an amazing team and working on some pretty incredible projects.

And I can't wait to Introduce you to him. Ladies and gentlemen, Brad Zuger. Welcome, Brad.

Brad Zuger: Hi Dan. Good. How are you?

Dan: I'm great. It's so good to be here. Um,

Brad Zuger: I'm so great. I'm so grateful to be here. So thanks for having me.

Dan: well let me, um, one up you there. It's, most of these recordings that I do are virtual. And I just I just want to say thank you for having me in your amazing office and studios so that we can do it in person because I think there's like a cool, um, energy that exists between the microphones somewhere over here.

And, um, it's just a good place to just kind of sit and be present with, um, as we talk. So thank you.

Brad Zuger: Yep. Thank you. And always love having you here and there is a kind of very unique energy in our office. Um. That, uh, feels very special. And, uh, so glad that you came here. Uh, there's a lot of, um, there's almost like a workshop feel here. So, a lot of questioning and curiosity and creativity. So, it's really, uh, exciting to talk about design here in our studios.

Dan: Awesome. And I, and I can tell you from the moment I've ever walked in here and I've been here hundreds of times. I just get a different feeling. And we'll talk about that because I think you're working on some pretty incredible projects right now that um, I think are a really good gateway into what makes that so exciting and purpose driven of waking up and coming into the office for not just you but all the other studio leaders and all the other designers and architects and everyone working here so we'll definitely get in there.

But before we get in Um, you know, Rockwell's been known for just these kind of pivotal projects that introduce kind of theater, hospitality, and great design, um, and really like a trendsetter, rule breaker type company, if I could say that as uneloquently as possible. But when you think about it as hospitality being the core of what you do, um, how do you define hospitality, or what it, like, when you think of hospitality, what does it make you think of?

Brad Zuger: It's a hard question, to be honest, but probably You've listened to so many different answers from so many different people on this podcast, um, and I'm gonna, I'm gonna answer it in a way that translates a little bit more to what we do and what we're really focused on, which is making connections and Indulging in people's curiosity for life and Especially today a lot of people are really Looking for more meaningful ways to connect to the places that they're visiting.

They're looking for stories that have depth. Um, and also stories and narratives that they can insert themselves in. So, we're really about crafting a narrative. Prompting curiosity, making people want to connect and come back to spaces. That's the magic that we're kind of focused on here in the studio.

Dan: And there's also that, I love how you said it's actually a connection, because to me, we're both Trojans, so fight on. But to me, um, when I studied, I studied literature at USC, and when one of the, My favorite books I read was on an English literature part. It was Howard Zend. Howard Zend by E. M. Forrester. I think I, I hope I'm not having a brain fart right now.

But it was um, there was this idea in the foreword that it was only connect dot dot dot. And it was just all about in fiction at this time that um, in that experimental stage of like becoming a modern writer Modern designer creating these new things, new impressions of what's going on. He was very focused on just the space between the two people, the two characters. Um, and I think it's interesting to think about that from a literary perspective and then you go into how you're, your perspective on connection.

And Designing for that connection between the people in there, the place, the people working there. And as we were walking around, you showed me two pretty cool new restaurants. And if you think of restaurants with breaking bread, that's like the ultimate and oldest form of hospitality, both given and received.

And I think you, you guys work on way more than just restaurants, and we can talk about that. But it was interesting, there's one at the W Union Square, um, it's called Seahorse, I

Brad Zuger: Seahorse,

yeah. Not quite open, but, uh, opening soon.

Dan: Okay. Not quite open. And then there's another one called Kokodok, which is through a mutual friend of ours or client of yours, friend of mine, um, Simon, where they're basically reinventing, reimagining like chicken, right?

And they're both restaurants. They're both in reasonably tight New York spaces, relatively, um, but they're so radically different. So. So, from a place, the simplest case of breaking bread or eating and connecting with place and people, tell us a little bit about what the process is for how you arrived at two radically different ideas.

Brad Zuger: it's an interesting observation. Uh, the cool part about those two projects is they're two, three minutes walk from the office. So, um, kind of high stakes because we're there every day and everybody from the office can go over there. Um, but you mentioned, just to go back on the first thing you were kind of talking about, about, um, connection being the space between two people.

Um, that's a really interesting point to bring up. Uh, 'cause often I think designers and architects particularly think about form meets function, and we really like to think about how story meets function and, uh, what that, what that means for, um, for a space. So. It's kind of like the opposite of what you're saying, and as one of the prompts for each of these restaurants, you could imagine how that could inspire two totally different things.

Both of them were, are completely different kind of experiences visually, but also in terms of breaking bread and eating food and all of that. Cocodoc, first of all, you're our mutual friend, Simon Kim, amazing client, one of our most amazing clients, huge visionary. He has this amazing passion about people and creating awesome hospitality, awesome kind of family feel, and so that was a great starting point is what he's doing at COTE.

And, um, the energy that he brings and, you know, when we're starting to dive really deep into research, often we start with who is the client and

Dan: The visionary.

Brad Zuger: their, what is their

vision, you know, and where is the project and all of that. Um, so that was an amazing place to start out. And, um, you know, we thought about, uh, first, Um, what a restaurant could be, like, how to create new thoughts about a restaurant.

You know, there's a million restaurants in New York City. Um, so we thought about the first entry as, um, being this kind of threshold into this new experience. And, um, when you walk in the restaurant, there's a hand washing station. Uh, which sounds kind of ridiculous, but this is a fried chicken restaurant.

Dan: But it's also a rite of passage, right? In traditional hospitality, one of the first things that would happen is you're washing your, your hands or

Brad Zuger: Yeah, it's

Dan: You're anointing yourself with water for an experience.

Brad Zuger: it's a, on one hand it's a ritual, and on the other it's like an act of self care. Um, and just personally, I find being a New Yorker, whenever, I'm always early to things usually. So, I'm the guy sitting there waiting for my friends, and wanting to order and stuff, but I'm too polite, so I'm going to wait for them.

And, you know, New Yorkers are always late.

Dan: I was always early or on time and it would drive my wife crazy, but so we're kindred spirits

Brad Zuger: Yeah and everybody's coming from the subway

so they sit down and they're like oh hold on I have to go get up and use the restroom and wash my hands and come back so this kind of lets you meet each other in the same place you know if you're not arriving together but also it's uh it's a meaningful way to enter rather than you know seeing the host like you see in every other restaurant.

It's a new ritual. And that sort of set the stage for how could we think about this whole restaurant experience in a new way?

Dan: And in developing that idea, where did that come from?

Brad Zuger: The hand washing

station? Well, uh, through many part of our process is research, like I said, but also asking a lot of questions and experimenting and throwing out a lot of crazy Ideas and boomeranging that with our staff, uh, you know, all of our staff and, and the clients. So I don't know the exact origin, but it was a lot of questions like, is could we do this instead?

Or that, you know,

Dan: But I do like it because it does solve a challenge that we all have where you, where you're waiting or other people are late and it creates another moment of waiting when, when everyone has to go and freshen up and be ready to sit down and break bread. Um, it's interesting in that you're, you're solving that problem.

Right at the beginning, and I think you said it's like you're meeting, you're meeting people where they are at that moment, and it's almost like what I love about what I do is shortening a journey towards sitting down and communing and connecting. I don't know, why don't they do that at more restaurants?

Brad Zuger: I don't know, but probably like you mentioned before, , well, probably where they'll start , but, uh, it's, uh. Yeah, to me, it's a, it's kind of a ritual, a ritual that is a cool part about you're about to embark on this cool experience.

Dan: it. Um, I love how you said that Simon is like, Visionary, but also brings in a real family feel to what's going on. Just from my experience, I think it was the second or third time I met him. He was out, he came over for dinner at our house. And, out of nowhere, like, he pulled out a jar of caviar. And started crushing ice.

And had crackers for my kids and friends. And it was just like such an incredible act that you would find to be so Hi, like high level and unusual. I love caviar. Don't get me wrong, but to also make it super fun as he was preparing it and engaging with my kids and like getting them into it. Now they hopefully don't have a really expensive taste.

Um, but, but he, and if you go to coat, I haven't been to Coco Doc yet, but if you go to coat, it's, it's celebrities and people and amazing food. And it's like such an incredible experience. That omakase steak thing that they do there is incredible. Um, but they also make you feel, they're meeting you where you are, right?

They're, no matter who you are, you're going to have a great meal and engage with some, an incredible team. And I think that all starts with him and that magic caviar out of the pocket trick he pulled.

Brad Zuger: Yeah, I think he's very good at creating special memories for people. And that's kind of touching. I think it translates through his whole company. And also, I think why we were Such a powerful match, uh, the Rockwell team and his team to conceive of this, this entirely new restaurant concept. And, um, I think often, often with, uh, him people can insert themselves and, you know, it's playful, it's fun, but it's also just awesome food.

Um, and I'd say with the design in terms of memories and stuff. There's nothing advertently literal about the design, but somehow you feel immersed in a really strong story, uh, a kind of unfolding narrative. Like, for instance, all these wall panels that we did there, they're all this kind of, um, experimentation of, like, twenty different textures that we worked on with a plaster artist that creates this very unique Crackle finish.

Nobody at the restaurant that's dining there is probably thinking, Oh, is this, is this uh, chicken skin? But that was the inspiration. You know, there's all these kind of subtleties and layers to the design. So many different lighting. The ghost arches that create this sort of cathedral. Um, choreographed.

Runway, if you will,


Dan: it does have a runway feel to it. But the other thing is I looked at the, at the renderings, um, there's an incredible amount of warmth. that I, that I feel when I see them, when I see, when I see the renderings and, you know, it's like a, a, a typical New York footprint in that it's like narrow and long, right?

But it, it just feels different from seeing those renderings and I can't wait to go there. And I'm, I wanna pull on that thing 'cause it was typ you said typically, and I remember this from taking architecture classes, structure or form facilitates function. Um, and then you just mentioned story again, and I know that storytelling and narrative.

Is so important in how you research, come up with the story, but then also program out the different typologies that you're working on in design. How did, how did you take, was that a conscious effort of like switching form function to story function? Or is that just how you guys roll here?

Brad Zuger: think that's how we roll.

Dan: Cause that's, that's like radically different.

Brad Zuger: And it's helpful to help us think through, also with the clients that we work with, how to make design decisions throughout the process. And we don't do it in a way that is Like I said, literal or, um, like, uh, kind of exactly, exactly this is the story and this is how it looks like. But, um, I think one of the cool aspects to that, that approach is that people really do like to have that, uh, depth of curiosity.

They like to insert themselves into where they are. And we like to make spaces where people come back. kind of question. Oh, did you see that? Like, oh, I think it's, I think, I think that texture means this. Uh, and at Kokodok, for instance, like, is that, is that chicken wire in the glass? Like, 99 percent of people probably won't notice that, but you'll kind of feel it and talk about all these things.

And that's what's cool. There's a sort of, um, layers of discovery that are there. These kind of layers of riches, let's say.

Dan: So I'm going to say this, um, inelegantly, but oftentimes when you enter a space, be it a restaurant, a hotel, a room, a stadium, a home, there is a narrative and it's almost obvious connecting you to where you are, right? It could have, you know, if you're in Nashville, it could have like belt buckle doorknobs or something.

I don't think that exists, but, but it's like, it's an obvious, like, Conceit, if you will. Which is cool, and everywhere it has that Everywhere it has a place for that. But I find that, especially as hearing you talk about Kokodok and the chicken wire and the plaster and seeing those renderings, and also just referencing other projects that I've seen, there's a there's almost like a depth, or it's like a you have that story, and then you're iterating beyond it so that it's like, it's an implied, there's like a Um, like a haze or a glow of whatever that story or narrative was.

So it's not like completely obvious, but it's, you got to look a little bit deeper.

Brad Zuger: the curiosity aspect to it. And I think people are really looking, they're really looking for, for that these days. And, um, I think authenticity is also a really important aspect to these designs. Um, you know, something that's truthful and meaningful. So, um, yeah. That's, that's an important part of, to this research, you know.

Otherwise we wouldn't, if we weren't doing this research and exploration and experimentation and trying different things, it wouldn't really have that kind of authentic depth to it.

Dan: is a really important word, but you'll hear other people say, Oh, it's so overused and blah, blah, blah. But to me, authenticity is about Being so aligned with the values and the vision of who you are, the space you're trying to create, the business you're trying to create, the team you're trying to build.

And it's about, once you have those, those pillars and the vision and there's alignment, it's about the, um, to me, authenticity is about the consistency of delivering those promises or values. How do you See that. Or what do you, what do you, cause I don't know, I don't know if some people just say authenticity is just overused as a, as a way to like start a conversation or be controversial, but like, how do you balance that?

Have you heard that before? And how do you guys balance that? You and your teams?

Brad Zuger: Well, I think Seahorse, you mentioned Seahorse, I

think it's a really good example. of, of this idea about truth or authenticity.

Dan: through,

Brad Zuger: that was a project where we dove super deep into the research. Um, and that kind of depth and feeling like, okay, this is, this is a real experience that, uh, is not, like, solely contrived.

But it's actually based on where we are and what we're about to eat. That, that's kind of, those kind of things all contribute to authenticity. So with

Dan: cause I know on, you mentioned it. And we're, we do more than restaurants, everyone, but like just using these two recent examples of where I see on the renderings and Seahorse is not open yet, but it's like prime location, probably one of the best locations in all of lower Manhattan, um, being in the W Union Square right on the corner there, like ground level, um, you mentioned research at Kokodok where you're going deep into the story, the narrative and creating The space.

How do you do the research on something where there's so much information and history about Union Square and lower Manhattan and turn that into a project?

Brad Zuger: hmm. Well, first we, we got to know John. John McDonald, who's the operator and owns Mercer Street Hospitality and LUR. And, um

Dan: Did you do lure too?

Brad Zuger: not, but, uh, definitely ate there, got to know his point of view, and really awesome

Dan: Is it still around? Oh,

Brad Zuger: it's incredibly busy all the time

Dan: I had a friend that worked there a lot. Um, she worked there for years and years and years. Actually, I don't know if she works there But, um, yeah, he, he really believes in and invests in design and narrative and story. Wow, I didn't know that that was one and the same. Carry on, sorry.

Brad Zuger: Yeah, and then, you know, you said location is so great. It's almost the most perfect location for us since it's right across from, uh, Union Square where our office is. Um, and so my site visits were very easy, but one of my favorite parts about working in Union Square is the farmers market here, Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

It's just like awesome. I love plants and stuff like that, so it's like my favorite part to walk through that. Um, but, uh, you know, we, we thought a lot about, we did a lot of research about, The neighborhood, because we wanted this to feel, most importantly, like a neighborhood staple. It's a very sensitive and important project to us.

We wanted it to feel like it's been there for a while. Um, so that was one component of it. The legacy of W, the legacy of the building. We read about oysters, and I learned that in the late 19th century, New York was the biggest exporter of oysters.

and the world, uh, which is crazy, uh, because it's kind of gone full circle and now they're doing this, the alien oyster project and re using oysters to revitalize the East River, um,


Dan: there's a new oyster from around Long Island, New York Harbor somewhere called the Naked Cowboy.

Brad Zuger: okay,

that's cool, I want to try that.

Dan: a new, narrative.

Brad Zuger: maybe I didn't do enough research. I should continue.

Dan: Everyone will get a cowboy hat and a guitar when they walk in.

Brad Zuger: Okay, very, well now kind of very Beyonce moment.

Dan: But I didn't realize that New York was such a huge oyster powerhouse.

Brad Zuger: Yeah, and we saw, we like got all these books and um, there's these really amazing photos from that time of like piles and piles of oysters on barges, uh, all around New York. And so we were really inspired, like, all these kind of tidbits of, uh, information, you know, they don't show up, like, we're not literally gluing oysters on the wall, um, but, uh, you'll see a kind of nautical kind of reference, uh, mother of pearl, um, kind of handmade tiles that feel like scales, that feel like maybe oyster shells, you don't really know, there's a kind of a depth and ambiguity.

Um, and so, all these layers, the kind of neighborhood, the architecture, this kind of feeling that it needs to be a place that feels true to where it is, and what it is, what it is doing. So, meeting both Union Square, and the legacy of W, and the legacy of that building, and John, a guy who is super passionate about seafood in New York, um, We somehow found different ways to layer all that into this design.

Dan: And then much in the same way. Or are there any similar instances where you weren't so overt with oyster shells, let's just say, or just oysters glued to a wall, um, and you reiterated that? Like, what are some, walk us through some examples of like how you push the envelope in a subtle way.

Brad Zuger: Okay. I'll talk about the subtle ways and then I'll talk about one instance. That's the kind of big punch.

Uh, but the subtle kind, the subtlety is like we used a lot of teak paneling, um, but found ways to like do modern details in there, like these custom zinc profiled dividers, um, You know, the floor has a, a two tone, two tone stained stripe, which is kind of interesting.

Um, we've used a lot of zinc, like these casting tops. Um, and a lot of like really small, uh, kind of medallions and details like that, that really, uh, that we like found ourselves, you know. Uh, and that make you feel very immersed. And then on the other spectrum of things, we worked on this, um, this, uh, massive mural that's hand painted with an artist group in Brooklyn called On View that is really fantastic.

It's, uh, an entire wall of the restaurant that they hand painted and it's this whole, um, bizarre kind of masquerade party on the East River. You'd never know this by looking at it. So I guess there is a subtlety, but it's also really fun. There's a all these things to discover and within this artwork like And I don't want to give it all away because it's one of these elements that when people go back to the restaurant over and over they're gonna ask their friends like did you see that owl fishing out of the side of the boat or Did you see Ernest Hemingway?

Is that him? Um, but there's this whole layering of, kind of, did you see this? Is that a part of New York history? And of course it is. Is it part of the East River? Is this just fine? Um, but it's a really fantastic mural. It has mostly, like, blue tones and gold leafing in there and just feels uh, really, really powerful.


Dan: like, John and Simon as like archetypes for like really successful restauranteurs. In the city and beyond, um, what do you think, and, and actually this could dovetail into the teams that you're building and the people that you're, um, attracting to work here. Um, what do you think it is about those two people as archetypes that are attracted?

To work with you and the other studios here at Rockwell, like, what, what draws them here?

Brad Zuger: Well, we're so fortunate that, um, our clients come to us not to do something that has been done before, or, hey, I want this red room, you know, they come to us to kind of, uh, and give us this freedom to take risks and to do something new and, um, innovative, so. We're very fortunate to have clients that come to us and allow us to do that.

And I think that's what makes, like on the other spectrum, for people coming to work here, you have such amazing, talented, curious designers. And I think one of the most amazing parts about them working here is they feel they can take risks. And, um, we actually celebrate taking risks and celebrate people's individualities, them asking questions at, you know, every different level.

Um, that's very special. People that work here have a sense of purpose for what they're doing. They want to do something that's meaningful, that's different, that makes an impact on the city that they're working in, the project that they're working in. And I can't think of any other reason to go to work every day than having a sense of purpose.

Dan: Well, yeah, because if you're aligned with purpose and passion, it doesn't feel like work. It's like the old adage of, you know, if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. But some people, I think, I think it's the same people who have the issue with like the word authentic. are the same people that don't have purpose or passion in their work.

Because if they, and maybe that, maybe that's them just like pushing back on it because they have to drag themselves to work every day in misery. Maybe not that extreme.

Brad Zuger: I don't know. But I don't think, and to be honest, I don't think we have the exact answer for what is authentic. But, um, I think that's the point of all of it is, um, We have a passion for exploration and Finding out You know taking risk on what that could mean and putting it together and that kind of translates to every single person that's involved in all of these projects.

Dan: And aside from attracting great designers and talent to work here, I've always also been amazed by Rockwell in particular. There's a couple other companies out there but. Very few, where people will leave, do something else, and then come back. And what, and that must be because of the curiosity and the drive to find that passion.

Or maybe they went somewhere else, thought it would, the grass was greener, but then come back because they're really able to push the envelope. Do you, do you think there's truth to that statement? Like, how would you expand on that?

Brad Zuger: A lot of people I think we call it the boomerang here.

Dan: And you said boomerang earlier when we were talking, that's why I wrote it down. What was that about? But anyway, it is a boomerang. It's a thing. Okay, so why?

Brad Zuger: I, I mean, I think it's an awesome place to work. People, we have a lot of fun here. We don't take ourselves too seriously. But more importantly people really do believe in what they're doing and passion is, is about loving something, but doing it again and again and loving it more and more and more every time. So, I don't know the exact answer. I'd say people that come here are curious and probably they're a little curious about what else exists out there, but I think at Rockwell, you don't really do the same thing every single day. You don't know, you don't come here to work on like this one very specific typology.

Um, and so, probably it's easy to get bored out there in the world. I don't know. I've been at Rockwell for about eight years now and I didn't imagine Launching a studio, let alone getting to work on all the different types of things that we do here. It's probably

Dan: It's probably also because the unions, uh, Union Square Subway Station, right here. Almost every train is right there. So it's also very convenient to get here as

Brad Zuger: All connections lead to

Dan: And no matter where you're coming from, whatever line, you probably get a good story and connection with everyone. I miss the subway so much. I would always create stories about all of my fellow subway mates on the way to doing whatever I was doing.

Brad Zuger: is that what you're

trying to say?

Dan: what I was saying. Or, or to Blaine. And then Blaine walks you through into this magical place. Um, okay, so I know we've talked about, um, seahorse and Koka Dock. So two restaurants. You guys obviously like the typologies that you're working on, um, from stage to hotel to restaurant, to all things in between.


Brad Zuger: I think that

Dan: I think that the level of project also attracts some really great talent to work here as well. But what are, what are some other

Brad Zuger: powerful

Dan: typologies that you're working on that are really exciting you and your teams?

Brad Zuger: are some other typologies that you're working on that are going to be used?

kind of great, stagnant innovation, or that, you know, specializing in one thing maybe doesn't allow you to see it in, in a totally different way. So what's really exciting is in the studio, kind of, we're doing such a range of work. So, I'd say one of the other more recent projects that we just opened is 550 Madison.

Just such an interesting project.

Dan: a cool, it's a amazing and famous building, Philip Johnson. Right?

Brad Zuger: Yeah, 1984. Kind of like the last iconic post modern architecture. And, um,

you know, we're

Dan: had a, I took an architecture class once and they had a,

Brad Zuger: That's the

Dan: stuck in my mind. He said, uh, it was like a close up on his face. He's like, all architects are whores. you ever know that was a famous quote of his?

Brad Zuger: I, I didn't, again, like, maybe I should have researched, maybe it's the part of the research that we missed as a team.

Dan: Yeah, have little boudoirs throughout the lobby. Um, so what's, so what's super interesting about that because it's a really incredible building and then how are, how do you, like, he's such a famous architect that you're given this core and shell like how do you, you must have like extreme reverence and respect as you're going to start to work on that, so what was that process like?

Brad Zuger: well, at first, I mean, again, we were talking a bit about our clients and, um, another really amazing client, Oleon Group, uh, came to us. And, uh, this was before, we started the project, interestingly, in 2019, before the pandemic. Um, and, you know, we're really grateful to have clients like Oleon who come to us and say, what should we do here?

What, what's going to make this project special? There wasn't a lot of, this is a multi tenant office building. Um, so it's not a, not a restaurant exactly. But there wasn't a lot of, uh, projects like that at the time. Of course there was, uh, like providing significant amenity spaces for their tenants. Of course there was like Google and Apple and tech companies providing awesome things to their tenants as a single entity.

Um, but not a lot of buildings in New York really. Offering or being willing to offer a suite of like awesome things to do. So,

Dan: And it's that suite of awesome, awesome thing. So it's a really, it's a, how many floors are in it?

Brad Zuger: uh, 50 something floors. We did the, we did the many, like two floors,

which is the sky lobby floor and, uh, fitness and spa area on the, in the basement area.

Dan: Okay. So, but 50 floors, what are there? 15 to 25 tenants, probably.

Brad Zuger: Probably.


Dan: So if some have multiple floors and. That's actually really unusual, if I'm hearing you correctly, where you'll have 15 to 20 different tenants, like big tenants, in an A class building, kind of co mingling in some lobby. When I see that, when I go into A class, Class A buildings, the only place that I find people tend to congregate or interact with each other is going through security and in the elevator, and that's about

Brad Zuger: uh,

Dan: Right? So how is this different? Well,

Brad Zuger: Well, I'd say you'd be open this in 2022, which is like right, I don't know, like end of pandemic day, but you know, it was wrapping up and, um,

Dan: a

Brad Zuger: of stress this urgency that we are already thinking about, or it's like how important it is to create places for community and places for people to get together and connect.

Dan: it.

Brad Zuger: And this is much different. Like one, one of the prompts or questions that we were asking is, like, do people really want to get together with their clients in a white conference room? Is like, is that the interesting way to, like, pitch a project or discuss the financials of your firm. Um, and, like, how cool would it be to have a meeting around, like, the most beautiful hearth or fireplace in New York City?

So, we thought a lot about these spaces in a kind of, both hospitality and residential sense. There's this, like, amazing library, um, with all these, uh, Seating groups and the whole thing is kind of, uh, well it's all curated by Asseline. So, uh, amazing books in there. But, um, we thought how cool would it be to, like, have a meeting and then you score the deal and you have this awesome place to celebrate with, you know, your partner or your team right after the meeting and what would that look like?

And again, would that be a way to show, or would there be a walk over to connect? Yeah, you can kind of, there's a

Dan: Or ways to show, or was it one of the goals to get the different tenants to also connect and interact as well?

Brad Zuger: lot of different places to hang out down there. Um, one kind of important thing for us was, what's the work day like? And how do things change or transform over the course of a day? So, the main space, uh, we've designed this espresso bar. Uh, that and the day, you can come down and get a coffee, um, there's like a little lounge there, that's like the entry to the Sky Lobby, um, and then in the evening the whole thing can transform.

So the whole bar pivots out and we have seats and becomes a wine bar and um, this, this sort of podium area becomes a table. And the doors can kind of close, the lighting changes throughout the day from, uh, cool, like more cool tones, which are more, uh, kind of, uh, make you more alert, let's say, in the morning, and go to more warmer, uh, tones in the evening.

So, you know, it's kind of aligned with their circadian rhythm. Um, but a lot of the spaces transform in different ways. And that's an important way to get people to want to come and, and also engage in space over the course of the day and engage with other people.

Dan: I find that changing the space throughout the day, I'm excited to see that because There's so many places, especially in New York, but I would also say other cities, where it's a lunch place, or it's a dinner place, and it's hard to, and I think a lot of it probably has to do with the lighting and colors and palette, but, um, there's a, it's, it's very difficult for some places to be a breakfast or lunch place, and then also have a success, be a successful dinner place, and so how did you, I Did you approach that really by the transformation and the, and the changing of the palette?

Brad Zuger: Yeah, I guess it's hard to do it all, right?

But, uh, and you want to make it as simple as possible, uh, to, to do that. Like you can't, uh, change, you can't completely change everything in the space. You want it to be easy for the client. Um, But you also want it to be meaningful for the people who are coming there.

Um, so, most of the, most of the things we focused on were experiential transformations. Like yes, the lighting, probably it's not something that you're going to notice, but the lighting changes from cool to warm. Um, but the experience of visiting the espresso bar into a wine bar, um, that's, that's something that draws people's curiosity.

Rather than changing a color, or, or, uh, changing the appearance of something.

Dan: so Brad, we've talked about like the restaurant space, hospitality, we're talking about, um, office and kind of rethinking and reimagining that, what are some other interesting typologies and clients, you know, you mentioned John and Simon, um, and now, like, what are some other areas that you're, that you're looking at and exploring?

Brad Zuger: Um, we've had a lot of really exciting discussions about wellness with many of our clients and hotel operators. Um, and so it's been a, it's been an interesting thing to think about in the studio. And, um, you know, a lot of people think about wellness as Going to the spa, or going to the gym, or kind of retreating.

Um, but we've really challenged ourselves to think about wellness in a more holistic way that can relate to projects like what we're doing with, uh, Neftali Group, for instance. Um, they're based in New York. We just launched a project with them in Miami called GEM, with a J. Uh, which is quite amazing, and um, really thought about what does wellness mean, and this is a condo residential project, and so what does that mean for people living in this new destination in downtown Miami?

Um, and like to us, wellness is more than just that kind of respite, it's also about revitalization and energizing your mind. Uh, most important, which I feel like I've said too many times on this podcast, which is connecting with other people. Um,

Dan: it's not, that's really important. They say that one of the, one of the leading ways to stave off Alzheimer's or decline cognitively as we age is connection. And being, having vibrant social and familial connections. I think that that's like an often overlooked part of wellness.

Brad Zuger: I mean, whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, um, feeling good is also about mentally feeling good and, you know, connecting with other people. There's no replacement for that in the world. Um So, that was a kind of really interesting aspect on how we approached Gen. Like, I'll give you an example of that.

They, you know, one of the, we didn't really get a, we don't ever usually get a clear program from our clients. Which is great, because they'll come to us and say, What do we put here? And so, that allows us to, um, throw out a lot of different ideas and go through a back and forth process with them. Um, but of course, like, a lot of residential projects have a library.

So, we're like, okay, we can put a library in here, but maybe it's like a library with five different libraries in it, uh, all focusing on a collection of different things and different types of ways to be in a library. So, the middle library is a, a Mezcal library, uh,

Dan: like a drink library, not like a book library.

Brad Zuger: Well, part, some are books, some are entertainment, uh, this one, the one in the middle, the center most part of the library within the libraries is, uh, a tasting room where you can learn about Mezcal and,

Dan: I love Mezcal. We should have been drinking Mezcal during this.

Brad Zuger: I have some over

Dan: Oh, maybe I'll have some before I, before I will go to your desk. We'll have a little, a taste. Oh, that's amazing. So, Hmm, to me. I know we mentioned, like, Hearth and Connection, but for me personally, I love a library. To me, a library or a study is all about, um, introspection, re evaluation, and if there's a chair next to me, conversation.

Brad Zuger: Right.

Dan: And a lot of

Brad Zuger: a lot of people are familiar with this idea of library. It connects to them. People can connect to a library many different ways. You, you connect to it about having a conversation with people.

Some people might want to go to the library. to have a quiet time or to read a book. And so, thinking about that holistically, back to holistic wellness, how do we program, rethink the idea of a library to offer all these different sort of things? So, um, that's been an interesting thread of, uh, thinking.

Lately in the studio and a lot of things a lot of a topic that a lot of clients are Asking about like what does that mean?

Dan: What other kind of projects are Naftali working on? I've heard you mention them a couple times.

Brad Zuger: residential projects

Dan: So multi multifamily or,

Brad Zuger: family. Yeah, really amazing projects Mickey is also really quite the visionary in terms of his vision for developing Really high end products.

We're working with them on a couple other things here in New York, too, that are very exciting.

Dan: Cool. So mostly like New York and Florida.

Brad Zuger: Yeah, yeah.

Dan: I would love to see that. And I think for all the projects that we talk about, maybe we can, if appropriate, get some renderings or photos and we can stick it up on the YouTube. Like, as you're talking about it, so,

Brad Zuger: absolutely.

Dan: If they're okay.

If Mickey's okay with it. Mickey, John, Simon.

Brad Zuger: They're okay. They're public. So, there's a whole website about them. And a sales center that we built and launched and books and stuff like that.

Dan: All right. Well, let's carry on.

It's interesting because as I think about this whole hybrid thing, I know there's a big push for people to come in the office all the time. Um, I think a lot of, Workspace designers are really struggling and also developers and owners are really struggling with like, how do they make these existing footprints more engaging and more attractive to get people in?

And I think a lot of that study could be about bringing the different factions together, or even if there's a way to like, um, do it by interest, right? I don't know what the interest would be, but like, in a, in a, in a huge building, everyone might be into outdoor stuff, or food, or wine, or whatever. And I'm curious, like, as a means of using, redefining these hotel lobbies, or creating new lobby space, or public space, maybe not ground floor, but somewhere up in the middle, like, how are there ways to Activate that to make it more interesting for people to want to come into the office and have that be almost a recruiting tool.

Brad Zuger: think in many of the ways that we kind of talked about, like, connection is It's important to us. We're a practice that is about creating and focusing on creating communities. Um, that's not like a exact answer to you, to what you're asking, but

Dan: it is because communities, again, it's connection, it's bringing people together and I think reimagining a shared space by multiple tenants might be Part of this iteration of what the future of office looks like and I know you're not you're not working on you do office Sometimes but it's not like you're bread and butter, but I think what's exciting about it is you're taking your hospitality sensitive sensitivity experience Perspective and bringing it to something that where people would just meet in an elevator or on the ground floor lobby trying to get to Where they're going

Brad Zuger: I think one thing, this wasn't really a learning thing, but, um, uh, coming from the pandemic, we, uh, or. You know, completely assured how important it is for people to connect with other people and using every tool in our belt to make that possible in every space and celebrating these kind of connections and in whatever way. Through, you know, subtle transformations and architecture, creating narrative layers, using lighting to change throughout the day. We have one room that can be changed into, like, a bar, and a dining room, and a cocktail event. So, um, we, we put a lot of effort into the depth of discovery and transformation, particularly in all the different spaces in this project.

Um, other than that,

Dan: to go back to something else you said earlier, where it was, you couldn't imagine yourself

Brad Zuger: I mean

Dan: leading a studio, or working here, ultimately leading a studio, and like, your path to leadership. That's kind of what I picked up on you saying. Is there truth to that? Right.

Brad Zuger: I didn't have this planned out and, uh, in fact I

Dan: Okay, so that's where I want to go. So it's not planned, you're excited, you have all this purpose and passion coming here to work. What unlocked, what or who unlocked that drive to be on this path of leadership here in running a studio? Like how did that, how did that come to be? Yeah, I mean, I always wanted

Brad Zuger: I mean, I always wanted to be an architect. It's kind of weird. I didn't have any None of my family members were architects. Uh, I'm from, like, a small town in Nebraska. And so there wasn't, like, an exposure to cities or buildings. Um But I was always curious about that, you know. I don't know if it's like escapist mentality or whatever, but I was just all, we didn't travel a lot growing up, but somehow I knew I always wanted to be an architect.

And I'd say when I, uh, like skipped forward 20 years, whatever, uh, when I moved to New York, um, I was very much focused, I worked at KPF for seven years on really amazing projects, mostly in Asia. There's a lot of brands like Rosewood and Park Hyatt. Um, and was really on this path that I thought was like, I want to,

I love buildings, you know?

And of course I still do. Um, and, but at the end of that I kind of felt I was coming up with all these cool stories because Rosewood is very much about this sense of place and developing narratives around their properties and Uh, and I designed all these cool, like, uh, terrace spaces with bars and like places for restaurants and entries.

But then, I always felt disappointed that I couldn't also design the bar. Or like, how the story goes inside. And, uh, that kind of prompted me to come to Rockwell. I met Greg, Greg hired me eight years ago. It's been this incredible mentor to me here. Uh, he's, I think you've met with him, obviously. You know Greg very well.

You've met with him in this forum as well. But, um, so, it, uh, it was an interesting path, because, you know, I came here really just to, like, understand, like, how could I do all that stuff that I didn't get to do before? And it unlocked this, all these possibilities for. All these things that I didn't get at design, and, um, Uh, I think it's a really interesting place where if you have a driving interest, somehow it manifests itself through Greg, David, whatever, the firm.

Dan: this case, you didn't really have, you wanted to experience all the different things, but eight years ago or nine years ago when you started, you couldn't imagine yourself having your own studio within here, could you?

Brad Zuger: Uh, not exactly, like that wasn't my

plan coming in here, I wasn't, like, eight,

Dan: So was it Greg was like, I guess you're, so then you're doing it, you're, you're lit up. You're, you're working on these great projects. There's a spark. There's a drive.

Brad Zuger: There's a spark in, you know, I'm, uh, I also always told Greg and David I love doing, I'm like, want to do everything inside, but also outside, I'm like, how does that come together, and how does the story piece itself, and so, uh, I'm really grateful. They threw all these different things at me, and the teams here have challenged me in so many different ways.

And, uh, I think that path is just being so excited about so many different things. Uh, and having the opportunity to launch that into a studio. Which is now, we're doing, I don't know, 18, 19 different projects. We're about 50 people.

Dan: Wow. 50 people in your studio.

Brad Zuger: Yeah.

Dan: So I guess a lot of it goes back to that whole purpose, passion drive, right? Working here really. engaged all of your senses and lit a spark. And it's really impressive and incredible to see the team that you're attracting to build, to work with you and work on all of these projects. Um, as you look at how the team has grown to 50 people now in your studio, Um, and they all listen to you.

They all respect you. They're all inspired by you, because I assume you're doing the same thing with them that Greg did with you, correct? You're paying it forward?

Brad Zuger: Yeah, I mean,

Dan: Or I'm going to go out there and talk to them and they're going to be like, no, he's an asshole.

Brad Zuger: No, excellent. Greg is, um, an awesome leader who has taught me so much. So, um, I

Dan: right? And we all stand on the shoulders of those before us, right? You know, it's not like you popped out of a vacuum and said, Hey, I'm here. I have a studio. But as this team grows and you're attracting these really great people, what's exciting you most about as you look into the future?

I think the

Brad Zuger: think diversifying what we're able to do and, um, or what has come to us. Like, I always like doing things. that I haven't done before that force us to think in new ways, solve new problems. Um, so, I'm really excited about projects we haven't done, like, I don't know, really interested in doing something floating in water, like a barge, or something in the East River, or, um, a lot of our, a lot of people here are very passionate about food and wine.

And I'm very passionate about architecture and, um, we've been kind of assembling all this research about wineries, because it's something we've never done at the firm before, and it's something I've never done. So, I'd be excited about that. Winery. Winery, yeah. North America, or don't, wherever. African.

Dan: What continent would be a dream for you?

Brad Zuger: any, any

Dan: Just grapes. You want grapes and a nice

Brad Zuger: Yeah.

Dan: Really? Well, that could be really fun. Huh. So, actually, that's interesting. So, you will, you have a space that, like, let's say vineyards or wineries. It's not like you're prospecting them right now, but you have an interest.

So, you're doing all this research and figuring out, like, how you would approach it. And then it's almost in a way you're like manifesting the next project to come in.

Brad Zuger: Yeah, I mean, part of, uh, our research is also drinking a glass of wine and chatting. So, uh, maybe, maybe the word research is very, uh, daunting or, uh, aggressive, but, you know, also part of our culture is having fun and asking questions and

it's not necessarily like we're going to. Read the encyclopedia of wineries and

Dan: But it's also time because if, if I'm hearing you correctly, you're able to explore these things and avenues, even if you don't have A client, let's just say, just yet. It's like, because all of this research will inform all of your other projects, but maybe you might manifest a great vineyard to work on, too.

Yeah, um, this

Brad Zuger: Yeah, um, this is our, our 40th year anniversary, as you know, and, uh, David, who's also been an incredible mentor to me, and

this visionary, amazing, one of the smartest people I've ever met in my life, um, Um, he gave this really, uh, cool talk to the staff a couple weeks ago about projects and how the firm has developed over the last 40 years.

And, um, one thing he mentioned is a lot of the projects, if not all of his early projects, or when he changed typologies in developing the firm, it's not like it happened in one day. Sometimes five years, ten years, thinking about things, pitching things, working on things. So, um, it's a, it's a cool aspect about work, working here, is you're invested, and people, like I said, really have a sense of purpose.

They're invested in trying to do something new, trying to do something they're really interested in, and the possibility to do that is, um, Is possible, because that's our ethos in a way. Yes,

Dan: just organizationally, just to be able to allocate, allocate thinking or dreaming time about. What that future might be, I just get the feeling as an outsider looking, that all of the studio leads are all afforded that thinking time. And that's really interesting to hear, because if you're thinking about where you want to go, and I think it's really important for everyone, not just companies, but people, to really get clear on a vision of where we all want to be. That comes from our authentic self, like, because oftentimes we might be hiding. We're not listening to our authentic self, uh, and it helps act as a North Star to get us where we want to go. Yeah, well

Brad Zuger: if I have all the answers for where I want to be or the exact things I want to be designing year and five years, but, um, I'm definitely more open to possibilities, and I know, uh, definitively, like, I want to keep experimenting, I want to keep trying things new, because that's, that's the excitement of it all, is taking all of our experiences and Experimenting and finding a new way to think about it, a new typology, a new scale, a new, uh, location.

That's exciting. That's energizing to me. I don't like to, like many of the people here, I don't like to do the same thing every single day. And that's like my vision for the future. And

Dan: And maybe Greg saw that in you and was like, okay, here's a sucker

Brad Zuger: the elite air. Maybe.

Dan: to be a leader Because he's going to try all these new things and inspire and get everyone else to charge up a hill I'm, just kidding. He doesn't think

Brad Zuger: Um, it's a special

Dan: it's a special place and it's a testament to be able to have you're doing something right because to have however many floors you have here on 14th and or 15th and union square west

Brad Zuger: left stunned

Dan: Something's happening, right?

So you guys are doing something. And it's really cool to see your journey and get to know you

better. And to see all the cool things you're doing and all the great people you're attracting. I would just like to say, thank you. For being here and putting yourself out there and sharing your experience.


Brad Zuger: So many things we're excited about.

Dan: Well, I appreciate it. And if people wanted to learn more about you or Rockwell, what's a good way for them to get in touch?

Brad Zuger: well definitely check out our website, uh, rockwell And, uh, you can always, uh, Instagram or email me be zucker on, on Instagram or be

Dan: Right. And what little town in Nebraska are you from again?

Brad Zuger: Uh, it, it's sort of

funny to say, but, uh, grew up in a town called Springfield. Yeah,

Dan: Why is that funny to say?

Brad Zuger: well people

make a lot of jokes about the Simpsons and there's one in every state and,

Dan: Okay. Is there a nuclear reactor there?

Brad Zuger: no, there is not, it is very,

Dan: A sillier one would be like Ogallala. How far are we from there?

Brad Zuger: uh, like three or four hours.

Dan: Or Kearney. Nebraska's

Brad Zuger: Kearney's like two hours

Dan: Kearney or Kearney?

Brad Zuger: Uh,

Dan: Kearney's,

Brad Zuger: I've been out of Nebraska for, uh, over 20 years, so.

Dan: So you're a New Yorker now. Come, come everyone be a New Yorker. Um, well, that's great. We'll put all that information up there. Um, I just want to say thank you to you again. And also thank you to our listeners because without them, I wouldn't be doing this and we wouldn't be here to share your experience and, um, I'd also just like to thank Blaine.

One day we'll get Blaine on here. Blaine makes your experience walking into Rockwell that much better. He's like, he's like the shepherd.

Brad Zuger: By the way, Blaine has so many stories for this podcast, that would be awesome. You should make an episode

just about that.

Dan: I just want to follow Blaine around for like a week. Just be like, what are you, let me see what you're up to. Let's go ride, let's go ride our bikes together.

Brad Zuger: I started riding a bike because Blaine rides his bike to work every day. So, very inspirational figure. One of the most charming and amazing parts of working here as well.

Dan: Danny told me that I haven't aged since the last time he saw

Brad Zuger: He's very sweet.

Dan: Uh, well, thank you. Thank you everyone and we'll catch you next time.

How Story Meets Function - Brad Zuger - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 144
Broadcast by